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The Handmaids Tale

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3573 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Compare and contrast the theme of control in 1984 and The Handmaids Tale

Orwell’s writing of 1984 was strongly influenced by World War 2 and the Nazi regime, whereas The Handmaids Tale was more focused and influenced by feminist issues. Despite the different influences for each, both present similar outcomes from a totalitarian government.

1984 portrayed several methods in the quest for control, such as brainwashing, torture, mind control, Newspeak, Doublethink and fear. The latter three are of key importance as the same principles appear in both 1984 and The Handmaids Tale.

The novels are structured in distinctive parts, which reflect the levels of control. 1984 has 3 parts, wherein the first two see Winston able to get away with disloyal thoughts and treason. Only in the 3rd do we see how effective the methods are. The Handmaids Tale is split into Night and Day, wherein control, for the commanders at least, is significantly more lax at night, as they are able to visit clubs from the ‘old’ world.

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Fear is a well used device, as every human in 1984 fears virtually anyone else, terrified of thought crime and the thought police, and the possibility of being reported and subjected to the ministry of loves ‘re-education’. This is shown by always being watched by the seemingly omnipresent telescreens. Fear is used to control people by suppressing thoughts and emotions such as hope, joy, or rebellion.

Like 1984, the populace of The Handmaids Tale are controlled through fear, but instead of brainwashing and mind control, it is achieved through military presence.

The people are unlikely to rebel, as they know how the government took power; The destruction of congress and the president, the reversal of female rights, and the public displays of ‘traitors’ hung on university walls.

“Beside the main gateway there are six more bodies hanging, by the necks, their hands tied in front of them, their heads in white bags tipped sideways on their shoulders”

The fact that the new regime displays the bodies distils a fear within the handmaids, encouraging them to adapt to the new conditions. The irony of also placing them on university walls is startling: before the new government, the university would have encouraged free thinking. Now, it has become a tyrannical outpost of the government, serving as a constant reminder of how the new regime works, and ideas of revolution or disloyalty are punishable by death.

This in particular helps promote the feelings of fear that keeps rebellious actions in check.

Despite the handmaids being in identical situations, they fear other women, as they were encouraged to spy and report ill behaviour. This leads on to a rather interesting point about how each government tries to maintain control: By turning the handmaids against each other, the government makes its citizens police themselves, handing over traitors to the authorities. In such a situation, it would be expected that the handmaids would band together and support each other. However, the opposite has happened, allowing the government to remain above as the authority figure, and clean up the work its citizens have done. Thus instead of the government having to expend its resources seeking out and arresting people itself, the people within do it for them, allowing them to maintain control with minimum force needed. This is particularly exemplified by the Aunts teaching the handmaids to report and look down on others that had committed ‘sins’, even from before the formation of Gilead.

“But who’s fault was it? Aunt Helena says. Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. Who led them on? She did, she did, she did”

This is a similar concept in 1984, but we can see no actual governmental body, nor police that patrol Airstrip One, but instead a people controlled by fear so ingrained that it maintains itself without the need of a physical manifestation of force.

Each government has used fear to such an extent that the free will of each person has been taken away and replaced with entirely ingrained, deterministic behaviour, simply becoming ‘clockwork oranges’: The people’s actions are no longer a result of their own choices, but a result of their past experiences and current environment: – a world wherein they fear everyone, and the slightest disloyalty means death.

While both novels are set in totalitarian states, they do use some different methods to win over the citizens. 1984’s leader is named ‘Big Brother’, an implied protective entity, whereas The Handmaids Tale has no ‘nice’ leader, but a faceless, inhuman fascist regime that has brainwashed its citizens into loving Big Brother and their lives.

“Big brothers function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt towards an individual than an organisation.”

However, we can also draw some Irony from Big Brother. While it might sound ‘comforting’ to its citizens, it is also meant as an older and wiser force, controlling its needy, brainwashed dependants, and vigilantly scrutinising them.

The Handmaids Tale, although set in a totalitarian state, cannot be called a dictatorship as there is no clear-cut leader. Instead, the world has devolved into a patriarchal and male dominated society, wherein women have little or no power. The government in this novel is also a theocracy, believing and combining their own rules with the authority of God, and through this further controlling its people. This differs slightly from 1984, as there is no mention of religion or acting with the authority of a religion. However, with this point, some similarities can be drawn. It is evident in both books that the state wishes to control every aspect of life, and so control language. The handmaids are taught to say phrases such as “praise be”, “Blessed is the fruit”, or “May the Lord open”, as a standard response. This is done to condition them into the government’s ways of controlling the state, and to reinforce this theocratic ideology.

Newspeak aims to minimise the amount of words needed, suppressing human emotion by erasing knowledge of words needed for expression. It is hoped Newspeak will become so ingrained, that people will fail to recognise these unfamiliar emotions, and so will simply cease to exist, allowing only room for love and allegiance to Big Brother. This would eradicate rebellious thoughts, making thought criminals easier to catch, or it impossible to have negative thoughts.

Airstrip One is in a transitional phase with Newspeak being improved. If future generations were taught this, the government would achieve ultimate control over its populace. No-one would be able to feel anything other than love to Big Brother and hate towards its enemy, creativity would be destroyed, and its people would be kept in an endless war, suffering abysmal living conditions and innutritious food, while loving Big Brother for it. This method would ultimately be much more successful than that used in The Handmaids Tale, as the ability to even contemplate rebellion would be completely eradicated.

In The Handmaids Tale, even when generations had passed and children were brought up to be handmaids, they would still be free to have independent thought, and the ability to hate their life as handmaids, pondering what it would be like outside its iron grip. The handmaids unwillingness to accept this way of life is shown well through the inscription Offred finds.

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”

Translated, this means ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down’. This gives us a good view as to how unsuccessful the government has so far been in reforming the minds of the people. This is also reflected in the epilogue, as we are able to discern a discussion from a time after Gilead has seemingly fallen, proving its methods of control were far inferior, and so beaten.

In 1984, we can see no escape from the methods of control used within, and no feasible way to topple the seemingly all powerful government.

With each state putting so much effort into controlling society, we can question and explore their motives for doing so.

The Handmaids Tale tells its citizens that the military seized power for a ‘short time’ to address the birth crisis that the previous government had failed to avert. It does not, however, seem like it will give up its new control, and so is just in place to gain power.

This motive is identical to that of 1984, as we find out during Winston’s torture. Big Brother is only in place for ‘pure power’, to make people do, say and believe anything the government wants, and ultimately, power over all men, simply by ‘making him suffer’.

This is shown particularly well through O’Brien’s conversation with Winston.

“Power is inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing”

This shows us the true nature of Big Brother, how it does not wish to help, but gain power for itself, achieving ultimate control. This is further emphasised by another of O’Brien’s examples: “A boot stamping on a human face – forever”.

This shows big brother as far from being a comforting, protective leader, but instead a government in place for its own selfish agenda: the accumulation of power. This stands true for the governments in both novels, as both are corrupted by power.

The famous sociologist Robert Michels can be used to support this idea.

“All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”

It can be argued that the government in 1984 has already achieved an absolute power, and so through this, are already corrupted beyond all hope of reforming.

The government in The Handmaids Tale are seeking this level of power, fuelled by the selfish desires of males.

Betrayal is also a method of control. In1984, people must be wary of whom to trust, as even their own children will betray them. This is similar in the Handmaids Tale, as the handmaids cannot trust normal people or even other handmaids. Its effectiveness as a measure of control is best exemplified through Winston and Julia. Julia believed the government could torture and enslave the body, but not the mind, and they could ‘never get inside you’. However, the brutality inside the ministry of love proves the governments iron control over every aspect of society and free will, ultimately leading to the lovers betraying each other.

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Another method used to control people is sex. In 1984, the government has tried to eliminate lust and passion, replacing it with ‘state married couples’, put together when they see fit to have children. This is similar to The Handmaids Tale, wherein lust is a crime, and handmaids are only allowed to have sex with their commanders. However, unlike 1984, the majority of the handmaids are not brainwashed enough to have no desires or lust, but still dislike the ceremony they are put through. This is exemplified by Offreds abstract description of the ceremony, as if the act being performed on her is on someone else’s body, and she is merely a spectator.

“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for”.

The handmaids are in such a position that they must choose the lesser of two evils: the colonies, where death is assured, or becoming a handmaid and repopulating Gilead. The quote helps exemplify how the government has forced the fertile women into becoming little more than objects owned by the government.

Sex, or the lack of wanted sex thereof, has been utilised in both novels to suppress the population and drive fighting spirit to the ground. Despite the differences in the circumstances surrounding it in each novel, it works to the same effect.

On the subject of suppression, we can consider similar ideas in each book. In 1984, the government gives ‘Victory Gin’ to the outer party and proles as a method of appeasement.

“Instantly his face turned scarlet and water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it, one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club”.

Despite its vile taste and effect, the people still drink it because they have no luxuries, and so it is taken gratefully.

However, in The Handmaids Tale, they own absolutely nothing, and are given the bare minimum to survive: food, water and vitamins. They are not allowed to own anything, or use simple commodities.

1984’s people are simply told they are at war, and so must make sacrifices to support Oceania. Within The Handmaids Tale, there is further depth as to why food is so poor. During the handmaids time learning, they are told two things to bolster their support of the new government.

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it”

While making conditions poor enough to make chances of an uprising less likely, the government also try to recondition the handmaids into thinking that they have been done a favour, and been given a new type of ‘freedom’. This can be said to be similar to 1984, as both governments at least try to brainwash their citizens into believing they are working for the people, and a better future.

Punishment is another tool used in both novels to control their people. Orwell’s Ministry Of Love used public displays of traitors’ reformations. The people’s patriotic behaviour is reinforced via seeing how efficiently and brutally the government deals with thought criminals. The very social structure and etiquette of Airstrip One illuminates thought criminals, as they are expected to be extremely patriotic and supportive of Big Brother, with anything less arousing immediate suspicion. This is another example of how government uses the people to police each other. Through this, the citizens are unable to rebel, as they cannot structure their thoughts or write them down, as even something as trivial as keeping a diary is illegal.

“Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it made no difference. The thought police would get him all the same.”

The government in The Handmaids Tale shows no lenience to the handmaids, despite needing them to repopulate Gilead. This however, is due to the patriarchal rule that has evolved, blaming faults and problems, such as infertility, on women, and implying men are perfect. The government in this state also lie about their enemies, inciting the handmaids to support their leaders. We are also given another example of how the government forces its people to police themselves.

“’This man’, says Aunt Lydia, ‘has been convicted of rape’. ‘He was once a guardian. He has disgraced his uniform. He has abused his position of trust. The penalty for rape, as you know, is death. I might add that this crime involved two of you and took place at gunpoint. I will not offend your ears with any details, except to say that one woman was pregnant and the baby died. “

Instead of stating the persons true crime, of supporting an uprising, they give the handmaids a false one, simply saying he had raped and abused a handmaid. This turns the handmaids present into a kind of mob, losing individuality and going along with the combined feeling of the crowd – to tear apart the person placed before them for his ‘crimes’. Through this, the government keep the handmaids even thinking of rebelling, as nothing of the subject is said to them at all. Instead, they use an issue that would arouse vivid emotions within them, and channel it into destroying its enemies, a much more efficient and less resource costly method of seeking out and eliminating enemies.

1984 uses one idea not present within The Handmaids Tale to great effect. Doublethink is used to force its’ people to think whatever it wants, which includes the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time, believing whichever one the government sees fit. This is based on the principles of cognitive dissonance, and so it allows the people to completely and unquestioningly believe what the government tells them, even if moments later, they are told to believe the opposite. This is exemplified through hate week, in which Oceania suddenly changes from being at war with Eurasia to Eastasia, but the people believe, as the government tells them, that they have always been at war with Eastasia.

“The banners with which the square was decorated were all wrong! Quite half of them had the wrong faces on them. It was sabotage! The agents of Goldstein had been at work! There was a riotous interlude while posters were ripped from walls banners torn to shred and trampled underfoot”.

This fittingly describes the line ‘Who controls the past controls the future’, as the government can change any fact they like, while claiming that it is the way life has always been, and erasing any evidence to the contrary. Winston has the job of rewriting articles to fit the party’s current desires, and so is able to see the governments more subtle methods of control.

Through Newspeak, Doublethink, and erasing the past, the peoples within 1984 can be completely subdued, controlled and observed every moment of the day, creating an oligarchy virtually impossible to topple, and an efficient method of catching disloyal citizens. Compared to The Handmaids Tale, 1984 has a much more foolproof method of controlling its population, going so far as to control the very thoughts of its people and ensuring they will never rebel. In contrast, The Handmaids Tale had a flawed system, believing the handmaids would come to accept the way of life in Gilead as generations passed and grew up in the patriarchal environment, but still giving them comparatively free thought.

The differences are obvious, as the government in The HandmaidsTale allowed holes in their plan, failing to alter the cognitions of their people, and assuming the aunts ‘re-educations’ and military strength would be enough to completely control them. The government in 1984 avoided this, making it much harder, if not impossible, for a future generation to think anything other than what they require.

The governments use of doublethink is further shown by the slogans Oceania uses.

“War is peace; Freedom is slavery; Ignorance is strength”

These three slogans are all contradictory, but due to doublethink, the people do not question them or their meaning, but simply believe them. The final slogan can be applied further, as it is obvious how it is used within the principles of doublethink, and how, through the peoples ignorance, Oceania have a mass of devoted citizens.

Both 1984 and The Handmaids Tale are centred around the theme of control, and so varying methods of achieving this are interspersed throughout. While some approaches are similar, the surface reasons for each oligarchies acquisition of control are completely different, resulting in some of the methods being very unique and inventive. Both novels give very bleak outlooks on life if governments were to turn to dictatorships or totalitarianism, as both look in depth at the possible results of such an event. While The Handmaids Tale ends rather ambiguously, we are given information of a time after the fall of Gilead, and so can identify that particular governments inherent, methodological flaws. 1984 however, ends with the audience in full knowledge of how seemingly impossible it is to overthrow the totalitarian regime, and so ends on a very pessimistic note.

Through the themes and methods of control used within these novels, we are given a warning from each author of how quickly the world could descend into such deplorable states, shown the devastating effects and how difficult it would be to overthrow and rebuild from such a domineering government. When looking beyond the surface reasons for such control in the novels, we can see the identical, selfish desires of man, and how the intoxication of power could lead to such degradation of humanity and its morals. Through this, I think that the authors are sending a warning of the importance for man to control his own desires, keeping them in perspective, and if not, the results of ultimately becoming corrupted by power, and the final, irreversible consequences of losing control, of control.


1984 – George Orwell

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood


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